There are a wide variety of projects (fees apply*) available for people who are wanting to volunteer abroad and many organisations** to choose from. The majority of organisations offer projects based around areas of Conservation, Education or Exploration with some working all over the world and offering a huge range of volunteer projects whilst others are only based in specific countries or continents and only focus on a niche area of volunteering i.e. Teaching in China or Animal Conservation in Africa.
It is best to have an idea of what you enjoy getting involved in, what you are good at or focusing on the different academic or work related background you have experience in as this could help narrow down your search and make the process of finding a project all the more productive and straight forward. I already knew where I wanted to go so I just searched for the different volunteer opportunities within the country, this helped narrow my search down considerably.
A friend of mine spent 5 months in South Africa and did this through a smaller organisation called Gap Year South Africa. When searching for volunteer organisations I didn't research into this one too much as I wanted to go to Fiji but I heard good things about them when my friend returned so maybe they are worth a look too.
Why go and volunteer?
Immersing yourself in the culture of a foreign land can be one of the most rewarding parts of travel and volunteering. Whether it is learning the local customs, taking part in a tradition, observing how the local everyday life is lived or trying the local delicacies you will get to see a completely different side to the country as a volunteer.
Often volunteer organisations will give people the option of staying in a comfortable home-stay or a volunteer hostel during their time on the project. From personal experience I would recommend staying in a home-stay where possible as you will be looked after by people who enjoy sharing their culture with new volunteers and in turn like to hear about how things are for you back home. They will be your home away from home, take you under their wing whilst you are with them and teach you about local customs, traditions and some of the language. This is a great way to get some first hand experience of the day to day local life and is also a sure-fire way to make new friends.
Learning some of the language whilst travelling can be hard if you only stay somewhere for a week or two for a resort style holiday and often encounter other travellers who only speak English. As a volunteer you are much more likely to spend time with locals who will happily help you get the hang of the language and enjoy helping you practice it during your time with them. These could be the family members you are living with, the teachers and pupils at the school you are teaching at or the local workers at the conservation project you are helping with. This again is a good way to make friends and feel like you are experiencing a different, less touristy, side to the country which in turn is very rewarding and enjoyable.
Volunteering and travelling are both rewarding on their own but combined together they can be some of the best experiences of your life. Usually there is some 'down time' for volunteers to have a break from their hard work and see the sights, do activities or just relax and make friends with volunteers from different projects. Organisations sometimes offer excursions for an extra fee to allow volunteers to do things they might otherwise not get a chance to experience. For example a cultural visit to a local village or a group surfing trip. These are usually very fun and a welcomed break from working.
Travelling with a specific purpose in mind is one of the reasons why some people might choose to volunteer. It could be because they are interested in wildlife conservation and also want to travel to Australia so they choose to work on a volunteer project whilst there in order to give something back or contribute to something they are interested in. Similarly people wishing to travel in developing countries may choose to teach whilst there as this is a way to help the community and is a more personal and rewarding way to experience life in that country.
Volunteering could also be to enhance your CV, gain the necessary experience to start a career or make yourself stand out from others in a competitive job market i.e. teaching abroad before starting a degree in education, completing a relevant internship to brush up on skills, travelling somewhere different/obscure to show that you are happy to go out of your comfort zone and enjoy a challenge. It will also help to boost your confidence and make you more independent which is a bonus.
I personally opted for an organisation which allowed me to use my degree and acquire new skills whilst gaining invaluable hands-on experience. I went to Fiji with Frontier for a 4 week Journalism Internship.
Whilst there I was able to get involved in many aspects of journalism from shadowing senior journalists on their assignments to writing my own articles and getting them published in the daily newspaper. This helped build up my confidence and allowed me to get first hand experience in a newsroom. I was able to ask questions, get a better understanding of how a newsroom operates and received many useful pointers from the local journalists. I also made friends, contacts and learned a lot about the local culture and history. I went into my volunteer project with the view to enhance my current skills, add work experience to my CV and travel at the same time and feel it was well worth the investment.
Whatever your reason for wanting to volunteer abroad, there is no reason why it can't be fun as well as educational and productive.
Venus crossing over the Sun - Shadowing a journalist to the University of South Pacific for this article